Carolyn Harris rarely finds herself speechless. Yet the seasoned communicator and expert on royal history was indeed speechless when she learned of Queen Elizabeth’s death while doing a TV interview about the monarch’s health.
Dr. Harris, PhD’12, can often be found commenting on all things royal and Sept. 8, 2022, was no exception. She was on CTV News when suddenly she saw the flag lowered on the screen.
“I stopped talking; it was just a very solemn moment,” Dr. Harris recalls. “This was a very significant moment for the Queen’s family and for the wider United Kingdom and Commonwealth in terms of their relationship with the monarchy.”
A flurry of media requests followed – CNN, Sky News, the Globe and Mail, CBC Television, and Time magazine. As time passed, Dr. Harris noticed a shift from legacy interviews to those about King Charles III, the future of his reign, and when his coronation would take place.
Asked if she imagined a career in royal media commentary when she was doing her PhD, Dr. Harris, who is an instructor at the University of Toronto and an author, says she always found the topic interesting.
“My PhD looked at the role of the queen in the 17th and 18th centuries, and I spent six months abroad at the University of London,” she says. “When I was there, Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden became engaged to her former personal trainer. I recall the headline: ‘Princess to marry the man who made her fit to be queen.’”
It was chance that kicked off the commentator part of her career.
“One of my professors at Queen’s was receiving invitations to comment on the history of royal weddings leading up to the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton,” Dr. Harris recalls. “I said I could take some requests. From there, Queen’s pitched me as its royal expert and that led to all sorts of opportunities.”
“I really just seize the opportunities that come,” she says. “But certainly, it’s been an extraordinary experience, living through historic times of a 70-year reign.”
Her knowledge is broad and expands outside Britain to royal houses across Europe and beyond. She’s been asked to talk about everything from royal finances to poets laureate and how they eulogize monarchs.
Dr. Harris says her passion for royal history dates to her childhood, when she saw a documentary about the last Russian imperial family and was “fascinated and horrified” by the fate of the Romanov children.
“I was always fascinated by the people behind historical events, and the intersections of monarchy and turmoil and revolution,” she says.
Visits to places such as Hampton Court Palace with her family – her father was born in Yorkshire – planted the seeds for her PhD studies.
“I liked looking at [queens] and the decisions they made as wives and mothers and heads of royal households managing their servants and their staff,” she says. “What we think of as domestic became very political and often intersected with wider anxieties about women, their families and how children were being raised.”
One of her side hustles these days is being a royal expert on cruises. Last summer, she did a Mediterranean cruise with stops in monarchies such as Spain and Monaco. “You can really make history come alive to audiences,” she says.
Her cocktail party answer for what she does?
“‘I’m an historian and an author specializing in the history of the royal family.’ And I would see where the conversation goes from there.”
Dr. Harris’s books include Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada, Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette, and Raising Royalty: 1,000 Years of Royal Parenting.